Convicted Nazi Dies at 91


Last Saturday morning, after over 30 years of litigation, John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born Nazi concentration camp guard, died in Germany.

He was born Ivan Demjanjuk, on April 3, 1920, in Dubovye Makharintsy, Ukraine, to impoverished parents. He was a semi-literate peasant with four years of formal education, drafted into the Soviet Army in 1941, and eventually taken prisoner by the Germans.

His presence as an S.S. officer had been alleged in camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, including the infamous Treblinka, Majdenek and Sobibor death camps.

After the war, he changed his name to John, immigrated to the U.S., worked at the Ford plant in Cleveland, Ohio, became an American citizen, got married, raised three children and enjoyed his grossly undeserved piece of the American Dream.

However, dedicated Nazi hunters remained on his trail. In 1981, the Justice Department revoked his citizenship after concluding that he lied on his immigration application to evade justice. He was extradited to Israel where he faced a litany of war crimes charges. The prosecution argued that he was the Treblinka death camp’s infamous “Ivan the Terrible.”

“Ivan the Terrible,” even by Nazi standards, was notoriously brutal and sadistic; severing prisoners’ appendages with a sword, flogging women and children, and beating victims to death with steel pipes. The infamous Ivan was a Ukrainian national taken prisoner by Germans. He was trained to run the diesel engines that pumped carbon-monoxide into the gas chambers.

In 1988, the Israeli court found him guilty and sentenced him to death, a punishment which Israel had only issued once before to the abominable Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, who in 1945 vociferated, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Eichmann’s death sentence was carried out. Demjanjuk’s was not. His guilty verdict was struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court because of testimony from former Treblinka guards that Demjanjuk was not the nefarious Ivan, who was another Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko. As the New York Times reported in Demjanjuk’s exhaustive obituary, “On his citizenship application, Demjanjuk had listed his mother’s maiden name as Marchenko, but contended later that he had forgotten her real maiden name and used Marchenko only because it was common in Ukraine.”

Because a sliver of doubt had emerged about Demjanjuk’s nickname had emerged, the Israeli Supreme Court decided not only to spare his life, but to throw out his conviction entirely and set him free.

He returned to Cleveland, where a federal appeals court restored his citizenship after overturning his 1981 conviction for submitting fraudulent information on his immigration papers.

However, intrepid prosecutors and activists for justice remained on his case and in 1999, the U.S. government once again sued to strip Demjanjuk of his citizenship alleging he had been an S.S. guard at the Majdanek and Sobibor death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany in 2009 and convicted in May 2011 for playing a role in the extermination of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor camp. The prosecution had laid out a clear trail of evidence that explained Demjanjuk’s journey from Ukrainian prisoner-of-war to Sobibor S.S. guard. It was clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had offered himself to the Nazis. In May 2011, for his egregious crimes against humanity, he was given a paltry five year prison sentence subtracting two years he spent in custody during the trial.

Upon his death last Saturday morning, his family and fanatical supporters beamed with triumph. After exploiting a flaw in the German legal system, which says that sentences are not final until the appeal is finished, Demjanjuk was able to die comfortably in a retirement home instead of in a prison cell. His death could erase his hard-fought conviction, allowing yet another Nazi war criminal to escape justice.

However, even if Demjanjuk’s record is cleared because of a technicality he will go down in history as an example of man’s persistent journey for justice. His case should serve as a warning to war criminals around world over: justice will be done. You cannot outrun history.

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3 Comments

  1. abaldys says:

    The U.S. has, interestingly enough, become a safe haven for the likes of other infamous names like Stalin’s daughter, Lana Peters who recently died. Her words, “Wherever I go, I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name. He broke my life,” (New York Times, Martin 12/8/11) are telling. They show a person who was never able to escape her past. Nazi war crimes are an inescapable part of history and non-Jewish American Germans will never be allowed to forget that these crimes occurred. They will always have the moral burden of the Holocaust to overcome and the difficulty of mediating their German and American heritage. According to a 2000 study 42.8 million Americans or 15.2% of Americans have some sort of German heritage. While the Jewish Virtual Library claims 2.1-3% of Americans are Jewish and the North American Jewish Data Bank reported in 2011 that 39% of American Jews experienced antisemitism. For those gaining citizenship in the U.S. post WWII this is particularly prevalent. It is difficult to live with the legacies of war crimes as part of a historical past yet they are necessarily part of a shared history. As a member of a Lutheran Church run by a German pastor who sponsored a trip to the National Holocaust Museum and hosted a local Jewish Synagogue member to give talks within the Church on Jewish culture and heritage- it is true that actions are being made to further intelligent discussion on these issues and approach what is a difficult and unsettling past for both groups of American citizens. This progress in mediation between diverse groups of people is valuable and hopeful even if the story of Demjanjuk is still haunting and disturbing for all Americans.

  2. abaldys says:

    Perhaps the delivery and pursuit of justice is not as clear cut as it at first appears.

  3. abaldys says:

    Living with the American legacy of Executive Order 9066 that led to the internment of Asian Americans in the Western U.S., the My Lai Vietnam War atrocities,Guantanamo Bay, and the burning of the Koran by American soldiers in February 2012 that led to further violence has one questioning American’s ‘righteousness’ on the world stage. Perhaps the road to seeking justice may be in holding our own people accountable for their actions.

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